Hear ye, hear ye!
Avalon Faire, Kilgore’s own Renaissance and fantasy fair, opened this past weekend and is now in the full swing of its springtime season.
Located at 1076 FM 1252 West in Kilgore, the annual attraction invites guests to step back in time and into a mystical land filled with magic, live music, entertaining shows, fair food favorites and vendors offering wares of all kinds, from swords to soap.
The event got off to a great start on a bleary Saturday morning this past weekend, though the crowd of guests quickly grew as the sounds of acoustic music, clashing swords and cheerily shouting vendors filled the air.
It’s a big return for Avalon Faire, as last year’s event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the fair has expanded, adding new booths and attractions to their location, as well as bringing in new vendors and entertainers.
The fair will be open each weekend from April 17 to May 16. To learn more or purchase tickets, call (903) 983-0165 or visit www.avalonfaire.com.
A years-long legal battle over the collection of taxes in Kilgore ISD’s tax base may be edging closer to a conclusion, as attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case have filed a “Motion to Compel” and a request for a status conference with Gregg Co. Court at Law No. 2 Judge Vincent Dulweber.
The latest motion, filed on behalf of Gregg County taxpayers who allege KISD improperly collected tax revenues and seeks to bring all involved parties to the table to hash out the final dispensation of the case, including the appropriate distribution of tax refunds.
Cause No. 2016-1850-CCL2, with plaintiffs Darlene Axberg, John Claude Axberg and Sheila Anderson is a suit filed against the entire KISD School Board, including past members no longer on the board, and Gregg County Tax Assessor-Collector Kirk Shields. The original suit has been expanded to a class-action lawsuit, pending class certification.
Originally, the lawsuit was filed by Gregg County residents Darlene Axberg, John Axberg and Sheila Anderson. The expanded class-action suit includes plaintiffs Sheila Anderson, John Mills, Brenda Mills, James Nicks, Judy Nicks, Philip Eugene Patterson, Dale Hedrick, Laura Hedrick, Karen Wilson and Patrick R. Gatons.
The latest motion also takes issue with alleged “disrespectful” behavior by KISD attorney and legal counsel Dennis Eichelbaum in his responses to the plaintiffs’ requests for information which could help settle the case.
“Plaintiffs desire to bring this years-long lawsuit to conclusion,” the motion reads.
“They have asked Defendant Kilgore Independent School District (“KISD”) to produce information that would assist in calculating the amount of tax refunds that are owed. KISD, however, refuses to provide such information. Instead, KISD’s counsel sends mean-spirited and harassing emails likening Plaintiffs’ counsel to dog abusers. This is consistent with his uncivil behavior throughout this litigation. Plaintiffs respectfully ask the court to compel KISD to produce the requested information so that we can move this lawsuit forward.”
The motion goes on to describe plaintiffs’ pursuit of a refund of taxes collected after KISD repealed a Local Optional Homestead Tax Exemption in 2015, along with a number of other Texas school districts, when the Texas legislature began working to make such exemptions mandatory. KISD had voluntarily maintained the local tax exemption since the 1980s.
A 2016 lawsuit filed by local taxpayers sought to force KISD to reinstate the LOHE and refund taxes collected after its repeal. KISD has been keeping these funds, totaling more than $4 million, in a separate, untouched account as they await the final outcome of the case.
The case has carried on for years, with KISD appealing the case by stating their right to maintain and repeal their own tax exemptions at their own discretion and arguing they did not violate state law in the process of the repeal.
KISD’s appeals have been rejected by Texarakana Court of Appeals and Tyler Court of Appeals, who agreed KISD improperly rescinded their local tax exemption and deemed their repeal legally null and void.
The latest motion to compel also claims plaintiffs’ attorney tried to get KISD’s attorney to turn over certain documents to help them bring an end to the case in October 2020 and as recently as March 17 of this year.
The motion states KISD’s attorney replied to their requests by likening them to vicious pet owners who abuse their dogs, sending emails with bizarre, insulting song lyrics and claims courts “ignored the rules” in handing down their decision. The motion alleges this type of behavior has continued for years, up unto the present day.
“Just recently, on March 24, 2021, he (KISD’s legal counsel) threatened to turn Plaintiffs’ counsel into the State Bar simply because a request was made to sit down with KISD in an effort to resolve this litigation. He wrote, ‘You will not be sitting down with my clients. If you try to communicate directly with my client, we will move this matter to the State Bar,’” the motion read.
The motion states the attorney has exhibited unusual behavior in other cases, in some instances insulting the Texas Attorney General and replying to legal requests with song lyrics and poetry similar to those found in Disney movies and the writings of Shakespeare.
The motion, signed by attorney Daniel Smith, of the Popp Hutcheson property tax law firm in Austin, requests Judge Dulweber to compel KISD to produce information which would facilitate the end of the case and begin the process of issuing the tax refunds.
KISD Superintendent Dr. Andy Baker responded to a KNH request for further information, saying he, along with the rest of the KISD school board, absolutely wanted to reach an end to the case and were awaiting further direction from the involved courts for the next step forward.
“Both the Plaintiff’s Attorneys, Popp Hutcheson PLLC, and our Kilgore ISD Attorneys at Eichelbaum-Wardell-Hansen-Powell & Munoz P.C. appear to now be entering into a debate over words and perceived behavior in which Kilgore ISD is now entangled,” Baker wrote.
“In reading through this latest Motion to Compel filed by the Popp Hutcheson Attorneys, they look to be accusing Kilgore ISD of refusing to cooperate as we continue to try to find an end to this lawsuit. Please understand: This is absolutely the desire of the Kilgore ISD School Board of Trustees as well — for the Popp Hutcheson Attorneys to imply that Kilgore ISD wishes to prolong this lawsuit is absurd. Each one of our School Board Members is also a member of our Kilgore community. Both individually and collectively, they understand the challenges this years-long lawsuit has brought to our community, and, like our community, eagerly await some court direction and guidance to help begin these conversations.”
In his response, Baker also stated the information repeatedly requested by plaintiffs’ attorneys was already freely available to them.
“As has been repeatedly responded by the KISD Attorneys to the Popp Hutcheson Attorneys, the information they continue to ask for and continue to request from KISD is 100% available to the Popp Hutcheson Attorneys under the Texas Public Information Act through both the Gregg County and Rusk County Appraisal Districts”
Additionally, Baker states KISD does not have the requested records in their possession, and those records are kept by tax assessors in Gregg and Rusk counties. He also stated plaintiffs’ attorneys were already in possession of the requested records and had even acknowledged receipt of them.
“More to the point, and more to my added confusion in reading this latest Motion…as I understand it, this requested information that the Popp Hutcheson Attorneys are accusing KISD of refusing to provide them has already been sent to them. Last May, almost one (1) year ago, the Popp Hutcheson Attorneys sent Open Records Requests to our Gregg County Appraisal District and our Rusk County Appraisal District asking for this exact same information. Both Appraisal Districts complied with this request and sent the requested information to the Popp Hutcheson Attorneys, and their firm acknowledged receipt of the information,” Baker wrote.
He concluded by saying he, along with the entire school board, was fully ready to see the case come to its conclusion and pledged his and the board’s cooperation with the involved courts in reaching said conclusion.
“Again, please understand that our Kilgore ISD School Board of Trustees is equally as eager to see a successful conclusion to this years-long lawsuit and we all look forward to soon receiving some court direction and guidance to help resolve this issue.”
A proposed bill in the Texas House could “decimate” city and county budgets across the state and is threatening economic development projects, according to area officials.
House Bill 4072 would change how online sales taxes are paid — the city in which an item is delivered would receive the revenue instead of the city where the item is made and shipped. It’s a matter of sales tax being paid to destination cities instead of cities from which products originate.
That means a loss of millions of dollars of revenue annually for Gregg County and its cities and schools as sales tax funds instead would be distributed to other cities in Texas and the U.S. from products made and shipped from Gregg County.
For economic development projects, which leverage sales tax revenues when making agreements to lure industries to a community, it could put the brakes on such work.
As the bill continues to be considered by the Texas House, Longview Mayor Andy Mack along with state Rep. Jay Dean, Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt and Longview Economic Development Corp. President and CEO Wayne Mansfield have been vocal in their opposition to the measure and have been actively engaged in fighting against its passage .
Not only does the bill potentially impact the planned Gap Inc. distribution center in Longview, it also would affect many other projects in Longview and surrounding East Texas such as the Target Distribution Center in Lindale.
The impact comes from Texas cities and counties leveraging sales tax revenue when luring industries to the community as part of economic development efforts.
Texas cities use what are referred to as Chapter 380 agreements to offer incentives designed to promote economic development, such as commercial and retail projects. Chapter 380 of the local government code allows cities to offer loans and grants of city funds or services at little or no cost in order to promote economic development. Texas counties use Chapter 381 agreements in the same way.
So when the city of Longview, LEDCO, Gregg County and Longview ISD came together to help bring a planned $140 million Gap Inc. e-commerce distribution center here, they offered the company a variety of incentives.
LEDCO agreed to a forgivable promissory note of $11.42 million for the purchase and sale of 142 acres in the North Longview Business Park, with forgiveness based on completion from Gap Inc. of an investment and employment goals. LEDCO also agreed to pay to relocate utility lines on the property. The city and Gregg County each agreed to 25-year tax abatements on the property and agreed to reimburse Gap Inc. for up to 40 percent of local sales tax revenues associated with sales from the fulfillment center for a 25-year period.
The payoff, Mansfield said, was that the magnitude of the sales tax revenue generated by sales from Gap Inc. would be so great that it would pay back the community’s investment in the project within five years with a projected rate of return on investment of 29 percent. County officials said Gregg County would see $27 million in revenues over the course of its 25-year agreement with Gap Inc.
However, HB 4072 seeks to change that. As more consumers shop online and more products are shipped across the state and nation, the legislation proposes that sales tax should be paid to the city of a product’s “destination” rather than the city of a product’s “origin.”
“For Gregg County, it will mean a loss of $1 million in sales tax revenue annually just from the Gap deal alone,” Stoudt said. The county stands to lose more sales tax revenue from other entities as well. It will likely be millions lost when taking into account other businesses, he added.
“This bill was poorly thought out. It was poorly vetted. It was poorly written, and it will have the biggest impact on people in business in rural areas of Texas,” Stoudt said.
The bill is sponsored by state Reps. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, and William Metcalf, R-Conroe. However, the real source of the legislation is Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar.
Dean, R-Longview, said the bill came into the Legislature late during this session. But Hegar, who has taken issue with Chapter 380 and Chapter 381 agreements as e-commerce business has grown in popularity, held a hearing during an interim year without notifying many of the state’s representatives, including Dean.
The Legislature meets every two years, last meeting in 2019. In spring 2020 — when the COVID-19 pandemic was new in Texas — Hegar held a hearing “unbeknownst to any of us,” Dean said.
There wasn’t any opposition at that hearing, Dean explained, as he again noted that the hearing was held during an interim year, without notification to state lawmakers and when the COVID-19 pandemic was at a high in Texas.
“According to the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, (Hegar) wanted this bill to help codify the ruling he made during that interim hearing,” Dean said.
Meyer, who sponsored the bill, serves as chair of the state’s Ways and Means Committee, which, among other things, has jurisdiction over all proposals related to raising state revenue, levying state taxes and fees, permitting local governments to levy or impose property tax, sales and use tax and other fees, and all proposals to regulate the manner of collection of local government revenues and taxes.
Dean said not only does the bill cover Hegar’s ruling, but it actually goes further than that. Dean noted that Hegar perhaps “overshot what his authority is on dealing with these types of agreements.”
“We negotiated with Gap utilizing the tools that we had, and these (Chapter 380/381) agreements have been in place since the late 1980s. Our issue is that in Longview, we negotiated with Gap in fairness based on what the statutes are from the state regarding the tools that we can use to recruit industries and businesses to our community,” Dean said. “Now all of a sudden this bill pops up very late in the session. They want to change the rules of the game at a point in time when we — from a fairness perspective — utilized in good faith the tools we were given by the state to recruit and attract business. To change the rule with this bill, it not only potentially impacts our Gap deal, it has terrible issues for communities all over the state of Texas.”
Mansfield noted the bill won’t just impact the Gap Inc. project. Many small businesses have worked in the last year to grow their online, e-commerce business, and as they continue to ship items to other cities and states, they would have to funnel the sales tax to them as well.
“The logistics to small businesses that have managed to stay alive because they had an online business will be burdensome and costly,” he noted.
Mansfield, Stoudt and Mack each questioned the benefit of the bill to Texas when it could send money outside of the state, and each said the bill seems intended to benefit larger metropolitan cities by boosting their sales tax coffers instead of rural communities.
Beyond that, however, Texas could be sending money to Louisiana, Oklahoma or almost anywhere else in the U.S.
Cities primarily generate revenue in four ways: through property taxes, sales tax, fees and via municipal court. In 2019, Abbott signed legislation that requires voter approval before local governments can increase their property tax revenue by more than 3.5 percent. That effectively capped property tax rates in Texas for government entities.
Now, sales tax revenue is at stake.
“Hegar doesn’t like 380/381 agreements, but it’s not his right to dictate to communities how we use our economic development tools that were given to us by the state to attract business,” Stoudt said.
Mansfield testified before the state’s Ways and Means Committee on the bill, while Stoudt and Mack have been in contact with officials in Austin. Meanwhile, Dean is making sure the concerns of East Texans are heard at the state Capitol.
“My focus and my staff’s focus for the last four weeks has been on trying to make sure this potential bill does not interfere with our Gap contract,” Dean said. “I feel good about that. ... This is my primary focus right now.”
His suggestion to the Ways and Means Committee, he said, “is that we need to take a step back.”
“We need to look at either grandfathering in the Chapter 380 and 381 agreements that are in place and/or we need to come back during the interim and find a new way to address the issues that the comptroller has with them, then come back in 2023 with a new proposal,” Dean said.
The bill could threaten not only existing but future economic development projects in Texas, and Dean noted that other states, such as Louisiana, would love to have some of the projects that Longview has planned.
“I am doing everything in my power to make sure this doesn’t put our Gap center in jeopardy,” Dean said. “Just as I did when I worked with the community to bring a vaccine hub to Longview, I am using every relationship I have to make sure this doesn’t happen.”